Travelling with a toddler: is the answer just not to do it, ever?

E’s first flight, a deceptively calm affair.

People warned me about travelling with a baby. More than twenty minutes in her car seat would surely be instantaneously fatal, if the forums I read were anything to go by. Bus and train trips were equally perilous, fraught with all manner of unknown risks, such as broken lifts, closing doors and Other People. When she survived these journeys with a minimum of screaming, when I successfully forayed outside with her, I was congratulated on my abilities as a parent and as a navigator of the world. I bought it all. I felt proficient. I became complacent. Nobody warned me about what came next. 

Did they truly believe that handling an inanimate lump which just needed to be attached to a breast occasionally was harder than wrangling a fully fledged human being? No, I think rather that they couldn’t bring themselves to discuss with me the horror which is any journey with a mobile child, any child between say, one and an upward age as yet unknown to me. (I’m hoping four, but I suspect this is wildly optimistic.)

The car incites bouts of screaming, interspersed by short periods of calm. A constant parade of entertainment must be kept up, but nothing keeps the peace for longer than a few minutes. She wants to bury her face in my hair and hold my hand. I want to stare silently out the window and attempt to not vomit. (I’m yet to grow out of my own childish foibles. Moving transport has always been problematic for me.) Our needs are mutually exclusive, and of course hers always come first. 

Short journeys on the local bus are manageable, except that E has recently learnt to ask for a ‘nack’. What she lacks in precision of language she makes up for in forcefulness of will. She inevitably ends up plastered in crumbs and I am the recipient of baleful glances from disapproving pensioners. 

Half an hour seems to be the acceptable limit for train journeys. Longer than that, and it all descends into anarchy. God forbid the train be busy. Now that E knows how to walk she isn’t content to be held any more. She doesn’t understand how to do anything with crayons except eat them, and no toy or book we own can compete with the lure of the hair of the person sitting in front of us. What she wants to do is play with an open bottle of water, bang seat rests up and down, and scrabble for other people’s crumbs on the floor. Several months ago, before she was mobile, I endured a four and a half hour journey holding her all the way, whilst vomiting into a plastic bag. It was hellish at the time but now she can climb and throw I can only assume I’d still be cleaning vomit out of various crevices. 

I’m yet to experience plane travel with a toddler, having only just recovered from flying when she was four months old and screamed with harrowing force for the first thirty minutes of the flight. I imagine it will be equally horrific. We’re thinking of flying long-haul next year, and my vague plan is to hold off allowing her screen time until then, and then park her in front of a tablet for the entire flight. I’m thinking that the effect of sudden unbridled children’s TV on her neurotransmitters and dopamine receptors will be akin to a benign atomic bomb in her head, an explosion of colour and sound which will hopefully render her mute and motionless the whole way. Scientific? Probably not. Effective? Watch this space. 

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